Updated: Aug 19, 2021
What easy things can we do each day to optimise our immune systems and ward off common ailments?
Keeping ourselves healthy has always been important. As functional medicine practitioners, nutritional therapists are always looking for the root cause of an ailment and helping to prevent illness as much as possible by optimising the body’s in-built intelligence.
Humans have always been at the mercy of environmental pathogens that pose a challenge to our health and longevity. Modern medicine has achieved astounding things to prevent severe illness and mitigate the effects of certain bacteria or viruses. That is undeniable and something to be celebrated and grateful for.
What is also undeniable, is that many of the diseases that cause hospitalisations, operations and early death are often lifestyle-induced. For example, Type 2 Diabetes, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease are often the result of poor diet or lifestyles. These are also factors that can pre-dispose individuals to the worst outcomes if contracting other pathogen-borne conditions.
How We Live our Lives Impacts our Health
In recent years, we have become aware of the incredibly important role of gut bacteria (aka the microbiome) in promoting immune resilience. Sadly, the modern western diet, is heavy on ingredients that disrupts the microbiome and can have a long-term impact on our ability to fight disease. Stimulants, additives, and sugar are bad news for a healthy gut, but that’s not all.
Modern life also serves up additional pressures that our systems need to cope with like pollution, excess stress, poor sleep and environmental toxins like pesticides and plastics.
The Good News
The human immune system is wonderful and complicated. It bends and folds to each person’s unique circumstances to provide exactly what is needed for good health. It just needs the right tools and environment. Sometimes, it needs outside help and that’s OK.
In the face of a global health crisis that can make people feel out of control, it is important to remember that there are small, simple things that you can do each day to optimise the inbuilt tools you already have.
For some people knowing that you have a little bit of control can help ease health anxiety. This, along with the knowledge that (for most of us), we can rely on medical intervention when needed is a wonderful privilege.
Here are my Top 5 Tips to Nurture your Immune System
1. Look after your gut. 70-80% of our immune system is in our gut. We need a balance of the right types of bacteria to keep our immune system in good order.
✓: Eat plenty of wholegrains, five vegetables a day and regular probiotic foods like natural yogurt, kefir or fermented vegetables like sauerkraut.
✕: Don't overdo it on sugar, caffeine, alcohol and artificial sweeteners. These all negatively impact the gut microbiome.
2. Get Dirty. Our immune systems learn to deal with harmful microbes by being exposed to them and then building a tolerance. It’s a bit like exercising – the more you do it, the fitter you get. You can build immune fitness by not being overly hygienic. In a time when we are finding ourselves sanitising more than ever, we need to make space for a little bit of healthy microbe exposure.
✓: Let children play in the mud, get a pet, or get your hands dirty in the garden.
✕: Avoid using too much bleach around the house. The lack of exposure to dirt and it’s connection with conditions like asthma, eczema and autoimmune conditions is commonly known as the ‘hygiene hypothesis. Click there to find out more.
3. Mind your Mind. Chronic stress plays havoc with the microbiome and can dampen part of a healthy immune response. Being stressed can also deplete key nutrients like zinc, which is essential for healthy immune function.
✓: If you are feeling stressed or anxious, review your situation and make a plan to work on your resilience to stress. Consider mindfulness or meditation, regular walks in nature (aka ‘green exercise’) or relaxing baths at the end of the day. Technology can help! Try apps like Calm or Headspace, or a product like Sensate which uses gentle vibration to help calm the nervous system.
✕: Avoid convincing yourself that you are too busy to invest time in relaxation or enjoyment. It is as important as eating and sleeping well.
4. Get Moving. Regular moderate exercise is proven to improve immune regulation and natural defences. Movement is also essential for a healthy microbiome and helps to support good mental health.
✓: The key is moderation. Get your heart rate up high enough that you can feel good afterwards, but so much that you are exhausted for days. Swimming, yoga, pilates, jogging and similar options are perfect. Aim for 3-5 sessions a week.
✕: Limit high intensity exercise if you are very stressed. It is important, but not on a daily basis and definitely not if you are feeling under the weather – it can put more stress on the body and affect healthy immunity.
5. Prioritise nutrition. This seems like a no-brainer, but can take some thought and planning.
✓: Choose foods that actually provide the beneficial nutrients that your immune system needs to work properly. The important nutrients for healthy immuni
ty are listed below.
✕: Don’t eat for calories or just to fill your tummy. Put some thought into your meals and plan your food shops.
The Nutrients for Healthy Immunity
Including foods rich in these foods every day can help promote immune resilience.
a. Vitamin A – found in yellow/orange vegetables like butternut and sweet potato, but also in green vegetables like kale.
b. Zinc - Pumpkin seeds, seafood (especially oysters – fresh or tinned) and liver (chicken, lamb, sheep or calf) – ideally organic or free-range.
c. Vitamin D – the best source is the sunlight (responsible exposure without sunscreen). In the darker months, most people need to supplement.
a. Vitamin C - kiwis, cabbage, broccoli, papaya, cauliflower
d. Beta glucans – mushrooms, oats and seaweed
e. Polyphenols – berries, cocoa, flax seeds and vegetables. Diversity is important!
*This advice is not intended as a replacement for medical advice. Always seek attention from your healthcare provider if you are unwell.